Meditating on Theatre: Performances For and By the Community, and the Family, plus a bit on the meaning of A Christmas Carol

I wanted to do a post about the psychology of Haunted Houses at the end of October (as in, paid events / activities, rather than dwellings that are said to be occupied by ghosts), but of course, I didn’t get around to it. I put a pin in it until next year. But it’s occurred to me now and again, and particularly this weekend, how much theatre surrounds us at so many moments in our lives. People who go to Haunted Houses are seeking thrills, cathartic moments of excitement and rushes of adrenaline, both from the action of observing the performers and from seeing their friends getting scared. One’s company in a Haunted House becomes just as much a part of the theatre as the scenes they pass by. It’s that way among friends in other settings, too.

All that theatre does — and that’s a big “all” — is formalize something we already do. It reflects how we feel, larger than life, to make us aware and capable of understanding it. It clearly delineates the difference between audience and actors, but that line is so flexible, it’s around us all the time.

Example: my daughter’s ninth birthday yesterday. The party was simple, two girls plus herself, and I gave them a home spa experience. It was while I was carrying out the cake that I was reminded how much a birthday party is theatre. The guests are part of the ritual but observe it at the same time. They’re watching each other as they don the facials and cucumber slices, giggling and commenting on the experience, sharing their discoveries. It’s a play as much as an activity, however informal it might be. They’re the audience for each other, performing while relaxed. I know this because I watched my daughter’s reactions to the live production of A Christmas Carol performed at our local theatre this afternoon, and her delight in the play was as pure and entire as it had been to watch her bestie peeling honey facial stuff from her cheeks.

My head jumps from topic to topic. I thought about these even as I enjoyed the show this afternoon, watching the skilled actor Shane Patrick McClurg adapt his performance ever so slightly to avoid alienating a frightened child in the audience (how often we forget that Dickens originally wrote his tale as a ghost story), the subtle shifting between characters as played by that one actor, and the range of emotions portrayed by the incredible Michael Rawley as Scrooge. It’s a morality play, A Christmas Carol, one that beseeches us to treat each other with basic humanity lest we become the worst versions of ourselves possible. It occurred to me, too, that Marley’s Ghost could have an interesting choice worth exploring: if he is able to convince Ebenezer to be a better person, slowly deconstructing the chains awaiting him one link at a time by one act of kindness at a time, does that mean that Marley’s chain falls apart as well? Could unfinished business mean a shortening of one’s sentence in purgatory? A chance at moving on?

Also, I wondered whether Scrooge could be termed a vampire of sorts, given his long-standing need to take from his employees and society without giving anything back. There is a reference to vampirism in the story, as we would recognize it: “. . . . buried with a stake of holly in his heart . . .” is the penalty Scrooge gives to any man who takes Christmas too seriously. (That’s something else I love about theatre: how the interpretation flexes and gives more to each succeeding generation, teaching us and reminding us what we need to know, though not always when we need to know it.) But back to that vampire theory . . . Marley addresses the parasitic Scrooge (who, by virtue of being a parasite, is rather hypocritical) and gives him the tools for change, thereby bringing him back to humanity. That suggests there is always hope for a vampire to return from the state of being undead.

Or, I could just be reading way too much into it.

This week, I’m wrapping up a performance with the drama club students at my school. I developed a script for them, using pop culture references to retell The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen. We’ve got seven performances to do in five locations, and the set and costumes still aren’t complete. I sometimes feel like I should do the majority of the work myself to ensure that it gets done, because although it’s important for young people to accept and learn from the challenge of being assigned a task, when the task is left undone it affects everything else that we’re trying to accomplish. And there’s only one of me, directing and supervising an extracurricular play as well as teaching and parenting and dealing with the holiday. Watching the students interact is a theatre in itself. I am the audience in rehearsal, both while the students are on our makeshift stage, and beforehand, as they’re chatting and eating lunch and negotiating and making friends.

And then they watch each other, while they’re performing, offering each other suggestions. The audience and fellow actors are as much theatre to the cast, who must adjust themselves as they work.

Ugh, this ended up sounding way more like an essay than I wanted it to, but sometimes, that’s just how my brain works.

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